Starting piano at seven gave me a five-year head start on my arthritis. And even after the arthritis showed up at twelve, I had a few years’ grace. By the time the pain made unrelenting daily appearances, by the time the disease had written its changes into the very shape of my fingers, around the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I knew nothing better than the piano. I loved nothing—no one—more. I loved myself because of what I could do at the piano. For years, I could override pain or awkwardness with dexterity and coordination. My fingers were extraordinarily good fingers before they were extraordinarily bad fingers.
My first piano lesson with Mrs. Feltman, in second grade, was a lunchtime lesson. My mom picked me up at school and took me to Mrs. Feltman’s house on Blossom Drive, a redbrick colonial-style house with slab cement steps and white columns. That first day, I ran up the steps. At the end of my final lesson with her, more than fifteen years later, I inched down them sideways, cursing her for not having a railing.
When I showed up for that first lesson, I’d been begging for piano lessons for a few years, eager to learn how to make sense of the plastic-topped keys of the upright Wurlitzer, desperate to know how my sister deciphered the small black notes in her piano books.
Mrs. Feltman was from another time. I cringed and beamed simultaneously when she boasted that I’d won competitions “and everyone else was Asian!” Her house was all wainscoting and chair rails, tea roses and toile, but Mrs. Feltman and her husband, a jazz drummer, seemed always to be shouting angrily at each other over a set of stairs to the basement. She had two sons, and the younger of them, David, was a mysterious and unattainable seventh grader when I began taking lessons. When I was early to my lessons, I would wait in the TV room with David, who silently twirled a hockey stick on its curved foot as he looked at the TV and I looked at him. The time would come when I had, for at least one brief evening, his full attention, but I would have to wait more than ten years for it.
The pages of my sister’s hand-me-down method books, already dotted with gold star-shaped stickers, soon had twin gold stars on every page. Mrs. Feltman said I took to piano “like a fish to water.” She said I was “going like a house on fire.” I loved her, even if once I drew a nasty caricature of her on the back of a program at a recital. I wasn’t careful. I let the program slip down onto the floor and she found it when she was cleaning up the auditorium. She called my mother to tell her how hilarious she’d found the picture—my depiction of her with sagging breasts that showed through the gaping hole in a sloppily buttoned blouse, the crazy-person hair, the cloud of euphemisms that I’d lettered in a halo around her cross-eyed head: Rob Peter to pay Paul! Put a little oomph in it! It’s a doozy! She wanted to use the picture as the cover for the next recital’s program. No, no, no, I said, embarrassed that I’d been so mean to someone so huge-hearted, someone who loved me so much, so clearly. But I didn’t learn. In fact, I’ve something of a shameful habit of drawing mean cartoons of the people I love the most.
I played piano whenever I could: before school, between school and dinner, in my coat and gloves, waiting for the rest of the family to be ready to go wherever we were going. I played in Mrs. Feltman’s recitals at the community college and won competitions at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, solos and duets, duos and trios and quartets. I competed against myself once, performing as one-fourth of one piano quartet, then sitting down in the velvet seat, waiting a few minutes and getting back onstage as one-fourth of a different team. My teams won first and second place and I was disappointed only that I hadn’t tied with myself. This episode is darkly funny to me now, as autoimmune infighting spoils my body. On the ride home from Baltimore, I laid my fistfuls of prize ribbons out on the backseat and meticulously filled out the attached cards: Awarded to: Andrea Serine Avery, On: May 8, 1985, For: “Flamenco” and “Rondino” (solos). I can’t remember what it was like not being able to read music any more than I can recall when A-N-D-R-E-A was a set of glyphs that didn’t mean me. In sloppy doctor’s cursive, Andrea and arthritis can look a lot alike. Me, a name I call myself.
The language of music is so deeply ingrained in me that if you tell me to be somewhere at six o’clock sharp, my first understanding is that you mean half past six. If you want me there early, at a quarter till, you should say six o’clock flat.
I figured out how to read music in church, which inclined me to believe in God. I’d had only a couple of lessons and Mrs. Feltman had taught me the basics of the treble and bass staves and the notes that hung on them like beads on a string: Every Good Boy Does Fine. All Good Boys Deserve Fudge. Like many kids, I wanted to zoom past this boring homework and start playing already! Then, one Sunday, following along in the Lutheran hymnal—maybe it was “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees”—it simply clicked. Now I can’t remember not knowing how to read music. I can hear a piece of music even if I see the score upside down, the same way you can spot your own name on a list even when you’re not looking for it. It finds you.
I’d been taking lessons for only a few months when it was time to learn “Over the River and Through the Woods.” It was a jazz
arrangement that was more complicated than the simple method books I’d played from so far; it had an arpeggiated bass line instead of chunky solid chords for the left hand. Furthermore, the right hand had a syncopated, galloping melody, which meant that my hands were frequently doing very different things but they were expected to make sense together, to make music, and to end up in the same place at the end.
I had a meltdown. I cried; I pouted; I banged my hands on the keys of the piss-stinking piano. And then it happened. I—no, I can’t take credit, it wasn’t me but my hands—figured it out, and it wasn’t hard after that.
If it was so sinfully easy at seven, what kind of musician would I have been if I’d started piano earlier? At five, maybe, or four? Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister, also started keyboard lessons as a little girl. She was a musical prodigy in her own right. What if she’d been given the lessons in toddlerhood that her younger brother was given? Would she be more than a grace note in the story of Mozart? If my musical head start on arthritis had been longer, could I have gotten good enough that arthritis, no matter how determined and phenomenal, wouldn’t have threatened my playing?
This question, self-inflicted as it is, is troubling. In his book After the Diagnosis: Transcending Chronic Illness, Dr. Julian Seifter writes, “Our society is quick to judge people for their illnesses...If you’re sick, it’s your own fault; your lifestyle, your genes, your fault.” This question haunts many sick or disabled people, and I am no different: Is there something I could have done to prevent this destruction, or to transcend it more fully? Could I have loved music more, practiced more seriously?
I torment myself by wondering if a few more years of training at the piano might have made my hands impervious to arthritis, might have made my left temporal lobe more powerful and more musically capable.
In my imaginary RA-themed Sgt. Pepper portrait, there would be numerous pianists with arthritis or other serious hand impairments: Leon Fleisher (dystonia), Byron Janis (psoriatic arthritis), John Cage (arthritis), and the composer Robert Schumann (disabling right-hand injury of uncertain origin). But you know them, if you know them, as musicians first, arthritics second. Is this because of the length of their head start on their disease or injury, or is it because they were, or are, more talented than they are sick? It was that latter question that plagued me.
My precocious arthritis and my early accomplishment at the piano were equally improbable, equally mysterious products of perfect conditions. So why is it so tempting for me to see my musical ability as some magical, innate gift that I inherited—perhaps minimizing the amount of sheer hard work I was accomplishing as I sat and “played”—and my arthritis as something I allowed to mess it up?
Though the nature-versus-nurture debate rages on, a compelling 2008 study of an extended Finnish family of musicians posited that musical ability is half-genetic. Of course, a lot of good that half-genetic musical aptitude is if you don’t have an instrument in your house, or you aren’t offered music lessons, or your public school cuts its music program. Musical ability may be half-genetic, but “neither nature nor nurture can alone make a musician,” argued Paul R. Farnsworth in The Social Psychology of Music. “Both must be present before musical and other abilities can emerge.”
Boy, that sounds familiar. It sounds like the “bad-luck” theory of autoimmune disease. When people first learn about my having arthritis, they frequently ask if it’s genetic. “Do your parents have it?” they ask. “What about your siblings?” The answer is no, no, I’m alone in my family; it’s a mystery. Rheumatoid arthritis has some kind of murky genetic component—as do all autoimmune diseases—but it’s not as simple as being passed down from parent to child. Like everything associated with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s not tidy, it’s not easy. I explain all of this to the people who insist that it must be genetic—it must be “passed down,” they say. They pause. “What about your grandparents?” they ask, and I want to tell them about all the things that my grandparents did pass down to me. I want to tell them about the music that was entrusted to me.
And in different conversations, people ask just that. “Where do you get your musical ability?” people used to ask me. Grandma Torvik played piano; my mom played piano and plays clarinet, still. It was Grandma Torvik and my parents who later collaborated to buy me a giant, gleaming grand piano when I’d outgrown the little brown Wurlitzer. My dad likes to remind me that he got the highest score on the musical aptitude test in the sixth grade, in 1950. Grandpa Avery was a trumpet and sax player. But the best answer is Grandma Avery, a hold-her-own gal who played in big bands full of men. I come from a family full of music. The question isn’t where my music came from. The question is where it went.
The tension between my two nature-nurture phenomena is inescapable: The only time I have really loved or approved of my arthritic body is when it has been tucked into the piano. I loved the muscular heat that spread through my hands and arms as I warmed up, the way at the beginning of any practice session my hands were obedient mittens, performing uniformly, but soon started taking individual orders. It was amazing the way my fourth finger would arch and let my thumb pass below, without being told.
How can I be angry at my body for the way it fails me now, when for many thousands of hours at the piano, it did things I hadn’t even asked it to do?
My body has frequently surprised—shocked, offended, hurt—me. But the piano is the only place where my body has ever pleasantly surprised me. My hands acted independently of my brain, decoding and executing the tricky bass part to Copland’s “Cat and Mouse” before my eyes had scanned the whole measure. In the summertime, they sweated and slipped even more easily between the slick keys, while the edge of the bench dug into the backs of my bare legs.
Before arthritis, I put everything I had into my super-loud, super- rubato version of “I Write the Songs,” out-schmaltzing Manilow himself. I binged. I loved Chopin and the songs from Free to Be...You and Me. I whizzed through “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” and Dire Straits. I could sight-read anything. I have perfect pitch.
We had a rule that I couldn’t play piano during prime-time TV hours, when my brothers were trying to watch The A-Team or my dad was watching Monday Night Football. So I’d take a bath and change into my nightgown and sit on the brown tweed couch and watch along, fingering the theme songs on a phantom keyboard on the arm of the couch or my legs, or penning compositions on my manuscript paper, insipid little exercises I labeled “Sonata,” ignorant of what makes a sonata a sonata. And then I’d try to squeeze in another half hour before bed, my long, wet hair stuck to my back inside the neck of my nightgown (no time for combing, just spray in some detangler).
I binged on the sheet music we had so much of, pulling out songbooks and folios and anthologies, playing through them cover to cover and moving on. Once, my mother scolded me for leaving my sheet music—much of it hers, or my sister’s, or my grandmothers’—in a mess all over the floor. “You wouldn’t do that if you really cared about music,” she yelled.
I ran to my room and, imitating the cadence of the prose I’d found in my biographies and correspondence of Mozart, scribbled in my diary, “My love for music has been denied.”
Somehow my diary was discovered; my brothers and sister had a great time teasing me for my self-serious declaration. “My love for music has been denied” has become a family joke. It was long enough ago now that I can finally be the first to bring it up.
The thought of going a day or two without playing (never “practicing”) was unbearable. My mom betrayed me—one of the few times she ever did—at a parent-teacher conference in third grade by blaming my half-assed homework and lack of concentration on the piano. “She can’t walk by that thing without playing it,” she sighed to Ms. Kalo, and simultaneously I seethed with anger and brimmed with pride.
I just didn’t see the point in learning times tables—except twos, fours, and eights, because those are the increments into which beats are often divided.
I wasn’t desperate for a driver’s license, because I had the piano—and so I already knew the freedom and thrill of feet on pedals, hands moving automatically, eyes scanning the horizon, fleeing.
After arthritis started to invade my body, I found that at the piano I was the puppeteer, not the sloppy puppet I was the rest of the time. At the piano, I was happily shapeless, disembodied, swallowed up in the sounds I made. I was powerful and athletic. My fingers were lean and nimble. And I was in control. I captivated people, amazed them, entertained them. Even later, the piano would be the only place I could be privately, internally arthritic without having to hear about it from anybody.
Playing music is inescapably, inevitably corporeal. But Tobias Picker, a composer who has Tourette’s syndrome, has said that as a child, music allowed him a respite from the constant feeling that he was disappointing his parents and anyone else who told him to simply stop the tics that are the hallmark of his disease. Picker is featured in Joseph Straus’s Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music, where he is quoted as saying of his Tourette’s, “Music saved me. When I played the piano, I didn’t have it.”
With my head ducked into a score, my tongue hanging out in concentration, my fingers deep in the keys, no one would dare interrupt to call me names or ask if I’d taken my medicine, worn my splints, done my physical therapy exercises. And besides, when I was playing, my arthritis wasn’t the most notable thing about me. The music—even if it hurt me to make it—was.
On my list of crushes, circa 1984—right up there with Shaun Cassidy, Ponch from CHiPs, the shirtless handyman named Perez who built our screen porch in 1982, and Joe Theismann, #7, quarterback for the champion Washington Redskins—was Mozart. From the very start of my piano lessons, I’d been obsessed with Mozart. I made Mozart out of an ivory soap bottle and a papier-mâché head covered with cotton balls. I dressed as Mozart for some kind of Brownie badge. I watched and rewatched Amadeus. I requested booklets of manuscript paper from Santa.
I was a child, and I idolized the child-genius Mozart for the childish and irresistible myth that music came to him so obscenely easily. I was not drawn to stories of overcoming adversity; I was not interested in musicians whose gifts came through struggle or at a cost. Yuck. Of course, the truth is that Mozart’s genius, God-given as it may have been, didn’t find its way to paper, to keyboard, to concert hall without staggering amounts of grueling work and fastidious revision.
But children do not daydream about hard work or revision. Nor do they dream about poverty, illness, despondency, or early death. So children’s books about composers are often sanitized. For example, in Franz Schubert: The Story of the Boy Who Wrote Beautiful Songs, Victorian-era children were instructed that Schubert “was born with a spring of melody in his heart and a song on his lips,” and that even though he was “quite poor and often hungry, . . . he was always good natured and full of fun.” No mention of syphilis; no mention of his failed attempts at opera. The book mentions that Schubert was a schoolteacher, but not that he hated it. Biographies of composers and musicians for children—and some for adults—all seem to hit the same high notes: early aptitude, prolific output, rave reviews. So, for example, you will not find a children’s book about the depressive one-armed Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein.
Really, there ought to be a children’s book about Paul Wittgenstein. Any kid with siblings would get it. Paul Wittgenstein was plenty famous when he was alive, but his own family didn’t think much of his playing (his brother Hans was the real pianist, at least before he killed himself), and even before he lost an arm, Paul seems to have been obsessed with the idea that his baby brother Ludwig was constantly judging his playing. It didn’t seem to be much consolation to Paul that Ludwig wasn’t even a pianist himself (not professionally, anyway—the whole freakily overachieving family played music and they used to have Mahler and Strauss and Brahms over for dinner). It didn’t matter that Ludwig Wittgenstein—the genius who went on to solve (and then unsolved) all the major problems of philosophy—wasn’t nearly the pianist Paul Wittgenstein was. The reviews and applause for Paul’s two-handed piano career, much of it breathless, must have meant nothing to Paul against the knowledge that his baby brother was coolly unimpressed by his key-smashing. According to Alexander Waugh’s fantastic The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, Paul was at times unable to practice the piano because he could feel Ludwig’s “skepticism seeping . . . under the door.” That off-the-charts insecurity? That was before Paul lost his right arm.
For most of my childhood, I believed that my musical ability was the most notable, exceptional, and interesting thing about me, but it didn’t especially distinguish me within my family the way it did in the neighborhood or at school. I was not the only musician in the family: Erica had started lessons long before I did, with Mrs. Feltman of course, and even Matthew and Chris had done brief stints at the piano. By the time I began to “hit my stride” at the piano, as my dad would say, Chris was playing first-chair sax in the high school band and squalling classic rock from the basement on his electric guitar in the afternoons after school.
I was no Mozart at home. I may have fantasized about it, but my siblings were never commanded to attend my performances or competitions, they were not forced to sit primly on the living room sofa and listen to me play, they were not ordered to stay library-quiet so I could record a concerto. I never got enough attention from my parents for my musical accomplishments that it incited sibling rivalry. Playing the piano never got me the kind of attention that my arthritis did.
I had—and have—competing sets of feelings about my siblings. As the bratty baby of the family, I need constant reassurance that I stand out and that I fit in—that I am original and distinct, but that I also belong to and with them. I had a special family, and I wanted to be special in it.
Erica, eight years older than me, knew the words to every song on the radio. She had bottles of nail polish in every color, including purple. She had things I wanted: a million friends, red hair, curls, a giant jawbreaker that lived under her bed, collecting dust. My dad talked to her like she was an adult. She got a phone for her sixteenth birthday. She was amazing: she wore paperclips as earrings.
She would let me and my friend Janis pick out hairstyles in Seventeen magazine and she would braid or tease or curl our hair for us. It never looked anything like the picture, but it didn’t matter.
But she could be hard, too: She brought fascinating and frustrating ideas home with her from Rutgers, where she was a philosophy major. “How do you know that what I see as green is the same color you see as green?” she asked me. I grabbed a crayon out of a dinged-up loaf pan.
“What color is this?” I asked her.
“Green,” she said.
“See?” I trilled, triumphant.
“Imbecile,” she said.
Matthew is six years older than I am. In his room, he had a pyramid-shaped wooden box with a hinged door, where he kept his “treasure.” If I caught him on a Sunday afternoon, when he was alone reading on his bed, he would let me open the box and pick out a piece of junk: a rubber ball or a coiled spring. He was always tender toward me, always protective. When I finally got a “preemie” Cabbage Patch doll, Matthew disappeared into his bedroom and came out hours later having made an incubator out of a cardboard box and things from his junk box. He’d referred to the set of encyclopedias; he’d cut circular armholes in the side and attached dustcatching strips of masking tape and computer paper to the open end. Together, we lined it with a nubby old baby blanket.
Chris is closest, just three years older. Chris taught me things, like how you had to rinse your mouth out with water, right from the tap, if you wanted to get the taste of candy or crackers out of there, if you’d eaten a few too many and wanted to get rid of the nagging craving so you’d still have room for dinner. We’d run up to the pantry in the kitchen at the commercial breaks to get more snacks. “These Triscuits are so addictive,” he’d say. He taught me the word addiction and also, later, what it really means.
I was the beneficiary of everything he learned, his pupil: It was because of Chris that in fifth grade I chose Jimi Hendrix for my “Who Am I?” Black History Month project. We had to draw a famous black American’s face on a paper plate, glue a Popsicle stick to the back, and then stand on a chair in front of the class to deliver our autobiographies. After two-dozen George Washington Carvers, it was my turn: “I died in London in 1970 of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose but I wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t let me choke on my own vomit, and so I was asphyxiated,” I said, loyal to Chris and to the facts and vocabulary he had drilled with me. “Who am I?”
Every summer we drove from Maryland to Minnesota in a sticky, three-day trek. The trips always started out tense and late—my dad nervously lingering near the side door, in jeans and T-shirt, his car keys on a silver chain around his neck. “Let’s get a move on,” he’d say. “I thought the plan was to leave sometime today.”
We’d hit the road later than planned, always blaming my mother for our late start, and my dad would be steely and silent, still the CIA physicist, for the first few hours. From the backseat, I would look for his eyes in the rearview mirror and I would find them worried, squinting, under the bill of his mesh cap.
But by the time we got to Wheeling, West Virginia, he’d start whistling, and by the time we were in Ohio he’d sing (“‘Round on the ends and high in the middle, O-HI-O!’”) or play license-plate bingo (“I see Missouri. Do you all have Missouri yet?”).
In Minnesota—or on the tent-camping trips to Chincoteague Island we’d take in the summers—my dad would wear cutoff denim shorts and he’d produce magical totems like wooden nickels and pieces of wood from the campfire that could be used to make charcoal drawings. Once, he rode his bicycle backward over a bridge, perched on the handlebars.
On one trip to Chincoteague, long before arthritis, on an afternoon when a thunderstorm had kept us from going to the beach, marooning us at our campsite, my dad and I stood at the fence at the edge of the campground trying to spot one of the fabled wild ponies in the marsh grass as a rainbow striped the sky. “No matter where you stand,” my dad said, stepping back so that we were about five feet apart, “you, the center of the arc of the rainbow, and the sun make a perfectly straight line.” He gestured with his suntanned arm, flagging a perfectly straight line from his chest to the sun.
Unless you stood in my body, you couldn’t see what I saw.
My dad and I had a comedy routine: “Yesterday I could raise my arm this high,” he’d say, holding his thin, freckled hand way up above his head, “but today I can only raise it this high.” He’d bring his hand down to his waist and then let it float slowly up to his shoulder.
“But you just did, Daddy!” I’d shriek, happy. I don’t know if he did this with the others or if it was just for me. I don’t want to know.
“No, that was yesterday,” he’d say, his teeth starting to show through the beginnings of a smile. My dad’s front teeth are crooked and they overlap each other right in front. You can only see it when he smiles, not when he talks or shouts or thinks, and so the first glimpse of those teeth peeking through is a rare and exciting treat. “Yesterday I could raise my hand this high”—the hand went way up, spastic—“today I can only raise it this high.”
“But, Daddy!” Oh, it was funny. I swear.
I think my dad surveyed the scenery around 1982—I picture him standing in the middle of our brown-carpeted family room while we tore into our Christmas gifts, I picture him standing there with a black trash bag in one hand and a twist tie between his teeth, vigilant, ensuring that the wrapping paper from our new Lego kits hit the trash without hitting the floor—and decided what each of us was and would always be: Erica, his philosopher and reader, cautious and prudent. Matthew, his tinkerer and engineer, left-brained and self-contained. Chris, his comedian and mathematician, a quick-witted hedonist. And I was—what?—the tagalong, the pest, the ape, the chatterbox, the cl otheshorse.
I love a picture from my “before,” one that my third-grade teacher, Ms. Kalo, took. It is a dark picture in profile. I am sitting in a window in the classroom. My tangled hair is hanging in my face. I am wearing what I want to wear: an obnoxious black sweater dress with purple handprints all over it. I am sitting at a perfect right angle, legs stretched out in front of me, swathed in horrible plaid stirrup pants, culminating in giant feet stuffed into boy’s high-tops with fat, bright blue laces.
“You and your baubles and bangles and beads,” my dad would say, laughing as I clanged into the kitchen draped with charm necklaces and gummy bracelets, my sneakers heavy with beaded friendship pins. “You’re something else.”
Almost as much as I miss that painless body, I miss the joy of dressing it. Before disease, clothing was sheer delight and pure self-expression. It was play; it was not yet costume, camouflage, or cosseting.
A pink tutu. A bright orange Windbreaker with a dollar bill folded into an origami bowtie from my Grandma Avery. White cowgirl boots with silver studs. A baseball-style T-shirt with Joe Cool on it from my cousin Peter, a music composition major at
Harvard. I was never a kid who hated getting clothes for Christmas or birthdays.
One Christmas, I received a much-coveted jean skirt. The skirt was an acid-washed A-line, an age-appropriate length, and on the back pocket there was a triangle with a palm tree and florid script, calling to mind another, more expensive name brand. So the jeans skirt was a major score, as was my other standout gift that year, a set of glittery fabric paints in little accordion squeeze tubes, also known by my friends as Sticky Wicky and all the rage at College Gardens Elementary School that year. You see where this is going.
Busily Sticky-Wickying T-shirts in my bedroom sweatshop, wearing my new skirt, it didn’t take me long to introduce the seat of the skirt to the permanent paint, leaving a big, butt-shaped blot on the back pocket where it competed for attention with that knockoff brand label with the little tree.
That was the day I learned the word confiscate. My mom took the skirt and the paints from me. She did her laundress magic on the back of the skirt and returned it to me and she stowed the paints on a high shelf inside the locked, glass-paned secretary in the kitchen, where they stayed, out of my reach. But my punishment would include more than the confiscation of the contraband (another word I learned that day). All afternoon, as my mom worked the stain out of the back of the skirt with repeated washings and the application of good, old-fashioned elbow grease, I was sentenced to wear a pair of Erica’s hand-me-down pants: Old. Brown. Corduroy. Bellbottoms. Death. I hadn’t been sent to my room exactly—no, that wasn’t my parents’ style—but that’s where I stayed, horrified at the prospect of venturing out in someone else’s skin.
Like this inventive (and effective) punishment, so much of our life in our house on Harvard Court during those happy years—the family meetings, which followed democratic process; my mom’s apricot-orange tofu squares, which all of us kids love the way other kids love their mom’s mac and cheese; the “paragraph policy,” which required that we write short, persuasive essays before we could watch TV (PBS programs excepted, so there was a free-for-all on Nova and Doctor Who and The Benny Hill Show and a wonderful British sketch-comedy show called The Goodies); the typed-up room cleaning contract, which defined a clean room by agreed-upon
criteria and laid out a deadline and repercussions, which we signed and posted in our rooms; the fee structure for the use of the word fuck (twenty-five cents per utterance, direct quotes, audio recordings, and written transcriptions exempted) was quite different from what was going on in the other houses in our neighborhood. Or America.
As much as I wished to be exceptional, as much as I fantasized about the days when they’d all go off to college or jail and leave me to soak in a concentrated version of my parents’ love and attention, as crowded as it sometimes felt, a principle of cohesion was at work when we were all together, some magical principle that was destroyed if any one person was absent. If we had Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit open on the picnic table in the screen porch, my heart would sink when the phone rang. If Chris wanted to go to his friend Alex’s to play, or Matthew wanted to go on a solo bike ride, or Erica left with the fascinating, gum-popping, big-haired friend Paula or the boy in a car who brought with him a box of Jell-O Pudding Pops like a suburban bride-price, it would be over. Soon after that, my dad would look at his watch, push his glasses up onto his forehead, and rub his eyes and say, “Let’s wrap this up,” and we’d play a few more rounds but it wouldn’t be fun anymore.
We were a full ensemble cast. We had enough people for any sport or game or skit. We didn’t need anyone else. Once, we broke into teams, boys against girls, and made geography pizzas: continents of cheese, oceans of sauce, forests of broccoli. It wasn’t the same if even one person was missing.
There was a brief and beautiful before.
There was a point of modulation.
Talent is no safeguard against tragedy. The Wittgenstein home, a gilded and glorious mansion with seven grand pianos, yielded five boys, three girls: all geniuses. Of the Wittgenstein brothers, all five contemplated suicide, two most certainly committed it, and one—Hans, by all accounts the real musical genius—disappeared into the Chesapeake Bay forever.
A family is a body and a body is a family: How much joy is it allowed? And how much pain can it bear? We would soon learn.